Saturday, October 27, 2012

Autumn Migration

Last week saw the first Redwings arriving in my garden in Bingham with six birds moving through and resting in the trees but not staying to feed. I was surprised by the absence of Fieldfares so I bimbled over to Kilvington Lakes to see if I could locate any birds on the move. In two hours I counted just one bird! Clearly the Fieldfare were late compared to recent years. Checking the BTO migration blog at  I read the following '  Until then (22nd October) Fieldfares were conspicuous by their absence and the BirdTrack reporting rate shows just how late they are arriving this autumn, in comparison to the previous two years.' So there weren't so many Fieldfare anywhere in the country then. However, birds have been piling in over the past week. Redwings have been moving overhead in large numbers at night and there have been small flocks visible in the hawthorn hedges around local fields and a few Fieldfare have been moving through East Notts.
This is hardly surprising as the news from Spurn on the Yorkshire coast, as reported on the BTO blog, was that there were over 21,000 Redwing, 10,000 Blackbird, 9,000 Fieldfare, 800 Song Thrush, 57 Ring Ouzel and 10 Mistle Thrush on the 22nd. With these kind of numbers being reported it is likely that Waxwings will be following and I noticed that RBA had alerts for Waxwings in Forth, Burnham Market, Brancaster Staithe, King's Lynn, Bacton and Cley Norfolk, Kilnsea, Tickton and Flamborough East Yorks, Lothian, Cleveland, Sussex, Fife and Lancs. So there may be a good chance of Waxwing being found in Notts during the week. I have not managed to get any decent photos of Waxwings in Notts for the past couple of years. I took the one below near Attenborough a couple of years back.
A friend has been birding along the North Norfolk coast today in what, he described as, 'Nasty weather with high winds, freezing temperatures and a hailstorm on the hour every hour.' He reported 5 000 Starlings over Hunstanton at dusk. 200 Fieldfare along the coast with at least 100 each of Redwing, Fieldfare and Robin. There has been over a dozen Ring Ouzel also reported. Last weekend I had no Fieldfare, Redwing or Ring Ouzel!
There has also been a conspicuous wreck of Little Auk along the east coast today and my mate had two Sabine's Gulls off the Coast at Titchwell in a ten minute seawatch...that's all he could stand in the shocking weather.

This Little Auk was in North Haven, Fair Isle this time last year. It's another one of those photos that is pin sharp on my PC but all fuzzy when I upload onto the blogger site. I've still no idea why this is the case. Still, should be some exciting birding during the next couple of weeks.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Mysteries of the Cuckoo. Pt. 1

I have been hooked by the BTO’s Cuckoo project and so I have been catching-up with some of the Cuckoo related literature on my book-shelf. I came across ‘The Cuckoo and Other Bird Mysteries' by Bernard Acworth. A book which I expect I bought from a charity or second-hand book shop and then forgot I owned. Excellent, I thought, a  good Cuckoo read. How wrong! It is a completely bonkers book by an unusual author. Ignoring the first half of the book which deals with the ‘other bird mysteries’ ( in which he proves that birds do not migrate – they get blown away!) to concentrate on the latter half we find the following ‘facts’ about the European Cuckoo. The Cuckoo’s unnatural practice of laying its eggs in the nests of other species, which has made the term ‘a cuckoo in the nest’ a common figure of speech makes the cuckoo the enemy of an ‘otherwise ideally moral bird society’ and so it is ‘an abomination.’ Acworth assures the reader that there is a ‘monogamous tradition of birds under wild conditions’ but the Cuckoo breaks this tradition by being polyandrous due to the fact that males outnumber females by six to one. As regards the fosterers, early on we find that by accepting and brooding the innocent-looking Cuckoo’s egg the mother of a legitimate brood will ‘hatch a domestic bombshell for herself, her husband, and her family.’ Initially we are struck by Acworth’s anthropomorphic language. Don’t be in any doubt that he means it. When he uses terms like ‘husband’ that birds have ‘monogamous traditions’ and Cuckoo’s eggs are ‘bombshells’ he believes these expressions to be completely accurate. He continues by saying that the egg is phenomenally small for a bird of its size. But stranger is its almost chameleon-like colouring, which frequently resembles the eggs of its host. But the greatest Cuckoo mystery is’ how does the Cuckoo so successfully and so secretly insinuate its startlingly small egg into the nests, often the tiny and fragile nests, of the little dupes?’
Bottom: The Cuckoo from Willughby's Ornithologia libri tres of 1667

A list is then presented to the reader. It contains six questions that constitute the main features of the Cuckoo problem. It is interesting to ponder all of them but not as interesting as his answers.

1.       How did the unnatural (!) parasitic habits of the Cuckoo originate?
He does not have an answer. He does not like any suggestion that the trait evolved over time in response to external environmental factors, rather opting for something along the lines of ‘desire or design on the part of the Cuckoos in the dim shadows of countless ages past.’
Plates from August Carl Edouard Baldamus's 1892 Life of European Cuckoos

2. How does the Cuckoo adjust the time of the insinuation of the egg into another bird's nest so as to ensure that it will be hatched at the right moment?
Again he has no answer but discusses the explanations prevalent at the time of writing. That at the sight of a prospective foster-bird building, the Cuckoo’ conceives’ her egg, and she is ready to lay in the chosen nest before the owner has commenced to incubate. This is based on a process of watching and searching. Alternatively the female Cuckoo knows when to lay by thieving one of the fosterer’s eggs and testing  it to see whether it is fresh or partially incubated.
 3. How does the Cuckoo contrive, as a general rule, to match its eggs tolerably well, and sometimes perfectly, with the variously coloured eggs of the different nests which house it?                                                                                                                                               Acworth, not surprisingly, treats this as a mystery still unsolved. He rejects any answer based upon evolution or adaptation by natural selection as such answers contradict his religious views. Coincidence is rejected. The theory that the Cuckoo laid its egg on the ground then hawked it around until it found matching eggs is rejected. That the Cuckoo wills a suitable colouring and marking is also rejected. Acworth clearly  had some sense.  The idea that the Cuckoo has evolved the habit of depositing its egg in the nest of the same species of ‘fosterer’ as had fostered that particular Cuckoo and its forebears and consequently in time the Cuckoo’s egg gradually changes to the colouring and marking of its regular fosterer is also, unfortunately, rejected because fostering does not affect physically the object fostered.

4.       Why is the Cuckoo’s egg unique in being generally, though not always, only a fraction of the size to be expected of so large a bird, and why do Cuckoos’ eggs vary in size? Answer: ‘No explanation of this size mystery has, so far as is known, been put forward.’ The explanation afforded by the theory of evolution i.e. of adaptation through selection is rejected because Cuckoos would never have survived in the past as their eggs would have been the wrong size.

5.       How does the Cuckoo insinuate the egg into the small birds’ nests?                          Cuckoos are big, nests of fosterers tend to be small. Often in tangled bush, on fragile reeds, in holes in banks or in and down a tree trunk frequently inaccessible to a big bird. ‘Little wonder, therefore, that ornithologists are perplexed about the method of egg deposition by the cuckoo’. Possible solutions: The Cuckoo swallows its egg and spews it forcefully into the nest – not taken seriously. The Cuckoo lays it in its chosen nest like any other bird – but Cuckoos’ eggs have been taken from nests in holes to which it would have been impossible for the Cuckoo to have obtained access. The Cuckoo lays its egg on the ground then carries it in its beak to the prospective nest where it places it – Acworth leans towards this even though there is little to no evidence. The Cuckoo projects or squirts its egg into nests – this will explain how eggs are found in some inaccessible nests.  The Cuckoo uses a combination of all four methods. Again Acworth ends this question by writing: ‘Little wonder, indeed, that the method of egg deposition in inaccessible nests remains a problem hotly disputed by ornithologists.’

6.       Why should the sinister word ‘cuckold’ be derived from the Cuckoo if the small female bird is a foster-mother? Bit of a side issue this. The male Cuckoo is not, in fact, cuckolded – none of the birds are. People subconsciously associate the secret life of the unfaithful wife with the secret of the Cuckoo.  Now here’s interesting! Acworth suggests that if evolutionary theory be true it is possible that the Cuckoo has evolved its ‘chuckle’ as a mocking response to human beings lack of understanding of the birds’ secrets. Blimey!

Now here’s the rub. Acworth states that five of the six problems given above would all be solved at a stroke if we accept his theory, the off-the-wall theory  that Cuckoos are nearly all hybrids of pure male Cuckoos and female foster birds! The correct moment of incubation, the varying number of eggs laid by a Cuckoo in any season; the matching of the eggs in colour, marking and size and the insinuation of eggs into inaccessible nests are all solved. And the little male ‘foster-father’ really would be a cuckold.
                         Elizabeth Gould or Edward Lear.  Goulds Birds of Europe: The Common Cuckoo 1837

So there we have it there are lots and lots of Robin-Cuckoos and Meadow Pipit-Cuckoos and Dunnock-Cuckoos out there. That will please the splitters! This book was written in 1944 and the last 68 years has seen significant progress in our knowledge and understanding of the life of the Cuckoo. Anyone following the fortunes of the BTO's Cuckoos fitted with satellite tracking devices will be aware of how much new information we are getting even as I write. Acworth would have been dumbfounded and astonished. But I doubt if he would have changed his views. Follow the BTO Cuckoo tracking project here:


Sunday, October 21, 2012

North Norfolk Pt 2

After a 'cardiac arrest' breakfast we were out at Cley-next-the-Sea by nine thirtyish and chalking up some expected species whilst walking down the east bank to try and locate the White-rumped Sandpiper that had been reported yesterday. Bearded Tits can be a bit hit and miss here but today was a definite hit day. Six or seven birds were pinging about just alongside the path and I managed to get just a single photograph.
The Sandpiper was a no show but during the day we did manage eighteen other species of wader. Geese numbers are beginning to build and we saw a few skiens of Pink-footed Geese but fewer numbers of Brent Geese. No Greater White-fronted Geese as yet. Little Egrets were to be seen most everywhere along the east bank and yet it does not seem that long ago that I twitched one of these in Lincolnshire!

Out on the beach there was a pair of Red-throated Divers feeding just two or three metres away from the shore line. They were happy enough concentrating on feeding and ignored the photographers on the beach.

    A few gannets were feeding just offshore and as always their spectacular diving technique was thrilling to watch. This juvenile bird came particularly close to the shore.
     At this point if there is anyone reading this blog who knows why the sharpness of photographs deteriorates when they are posted on a blog I would appreciate some advice on how to prevent it! All of these pictures are pin-sharp but as I look at them on the blog preview they all appear to be a little fuzzy. Also I can't change the size or position unless I mess around with the HTML code. Such a faff!
We saw over 90 species over the couple of days but Saturday will be remembered for the movement of Starlings. Throughout the day groups of birds were flying westwards along the coast. We estimated that between six and seven thousand birds flew by whilst we were out. There must have been thousands more earlier and after we stopped birding. Wither did they go?

                                                                                          Starlings heading west.


Friday, October 19, 2012

Snettisham Stroll

Meeting friends in Norfolk for a couple of day's birding over the weekend and as we arrived in good time we decided on a stroll around the RSPB reserve at Snettisham. It was miserably damp and grey and the tide was way out and consequently so were the flocks of waders. The biggest flock was of Grey Lag Geese as over 600 restless, noisy birds were trying to settle on the lakes and then flying out over the expanse of mud before flying back to the lakes.

Grey-lag Goose

I spent time trying to take some shots of the waders that were visible on the mud but the light was poor, they were all some distance away and I was hand-holding a 400mm lens - not a good combination for decent photographs. Eleven species of wader were visible but without a scope we couldn't get to grips with anything too far away.

Bar-tailed Godwit

   In a couple of hours we managed 56 species but this place is memorable for its atmosphere and mud...loads of mud  and flocks flying over the mud.

Distant flock of Grey Lag Geese - over the mud!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Nottinghamshire Birding Sites No 1: Kilvington Lakes

View Larger Map

Kilvington Lakes are situated just to the West of Staunton in the Vale and just north of Alverton. The area lies a few miles north of Bottesford and is best accessed from the A52 in the south, the A1 in the east and the A46 in the west. When leaving any of these three main trunk roads follow the minor roads to Staunton or Alverton both of which are signposted. Parking can be a problem as the most popular parking area is a section of grass/mud verge along the minor road which runs along the eastern edge of the lakes. When approaching from the south the parking area is along the left hand side of the road just after a road narrows sign and just before the road kinks to the left and crosses the bridge over the disussed railway. There is a 30mph sign on the right of the road about twenty metres after parking. Directly opposite the sign is a gap in the hedge which provides access to the site. Just on the right through the gap is a comfy bench from which good views can be had of the main or West lake. A board with daily sightings is maintained by the regular local birders.
Looking out to the right from here you can see the line of the dismantled railway and yellow-topped way markers and by following these you can get close views of the other two lakes: North and East lakes.
The area has been designated a biological SINC (Site of Importance for Nature Conservation) and is a series of lakes of both botanical and ornithological interest around a former gypsum workings. The old Kilvington railway here is a representative section of dismantled railway with some botanical interest. The lakes are surrounded by farmland with some new planting. The landform is predominantly flat, being a broad flood plain, and this provides fairly long distance views over to the west.
West Lake
                                                                                      The Comfy Bench
                                                                                                  The West Lake
                                                                                             The East Lake  
                                                                                               The North Lake  

Species The main attractions of the site are passage waders and wintering wildfowl and gulls. The area is good for raptors, at least eight species have been recorded including Osprey and Marsh Harrier. Passage periods have produced several interesting birds over the past few years including Black Tern,  Red-necked Phalarope, Common Scoter, Temminck's Stint, Green-winged Teal, Caspian Gull and Snow Bunting.  Smew, Iceland Gull, Greater Scaup, Red-crested Pochard and White-fronted Goose have all been recorded in the winter.
All Year: Little Egret, Common Buzzard, Snipe, Skylark, Green Woodpecker, Linnet, Meadow Pipit. This is a good site for Yellow-legged Gull for most of the year.  

Winter: Wildfowl inc. Smew, Goosander, Shelduck and Pintail. Dunlin, Green Sandpiper, Golden Plover, Jack Snipe, Peregrine, Redwing, Fieldfare.

Summer: Common Tern, Common Sandpiper, Ringed Plover, Little Ringed Plover,Yellow Wagtail, Turtle Dove.

Passage birds recorded have included: Purple Sandpiper, Red Knot, Whimbrel, Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, Grey Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit, Little Stint, Curlew, Sanderling, Turnstone, Little Gull, Arctic Tern, Hobby and Northern Wheatear.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Authors and Illustrators of Bird Books. Pt. IV: John Abbot

John Abbot was a different type of illustrator to those previously discussed here. Whereas they all produced engravings of their paintings to enable multiple copies to be printed in book form Abbot was a water-colourist and the vast majority of his paintings were one-offs either commissioned by acquaintances or painted for sale on the open-market. He charged about 6 cents per painting! And he produced thousands of them, most of which were insects.

John Abbot was born on 1st June 1751 in London and died January 1841 in Georgia. He travelled out to Virginia in 1773 to collect natural history specimens. Collecting natural history specimens and shipping them back to Britain could provide enough funds for a fairly comfortable living as there was quite a market for insects, birds, minerals etc. There were enough wealthy collectors who were willing to pay good prices. Abbot lived in Virginia until December 1775 but at the outset of the Revolutionary War he moved to Georgia. Here he lived out the rest of his life collecting specimens and shipping them back to Britain. At least twice his boxes of specimens and paintings were lost at sea and once all were burnt in a blaze on land.

He produced at least 5000 illustrations, possibly thousands more – he was painting for over 65 years! The total number of paintings that he made, or that still exist, will probably never be known. Many of the extant illustrations are in the Natural History Museum, London; Houghton Library, Harvard University and the British Museum, London and at least 15 other libraries and museums around the globe. Many are in private collections.
As he did not write or illustrate any books directly it is difficult to find any examples of his work. The only publication to bear his name was The Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia, whose primary author was James Edward Smith. This being a book on butterflies and moths it is thin on bird illustrations! Abbot was a supplier of illustrations for other authors. The earliest set of his bird illustrations was completed in 1791 and sent to his agent in London, Francillon. These paintings were the first of many hundreds to be bought by private collectors and by the authors of ornithological works. Abbot’s paintings are among the earliest representations of the birds of North America. He is considered a pioneer of American ornithology and  in 1809 he met the American ornithologist Alexander Wilson (1766-1831). Wilson, the ‘father of American ornithology’, had come to America from Scotland, and had embarked on a nine volume work, American Ornithology (1808-13). Abbot provided Wilson with many illustrations for his books.
In 1997 Beehive press published a book of some of Abbot’s bird plates called John Abbot’s Birds of Georgia: Selected Drawings from the Houghton Library, Harvard University. It’s not cheap…if you can find a copy. A good read is Pamela Gilbert’s: John Abbot: Birds, Butterflies and Other Wonders, (NHM 1998).
The species’ names used by Abbot for his illustrations were often very different to those in common usage today. Test yourself! What are the species in the following Abbot paintings now known as?
                                                                                          Black Cheak
                      Broad Tail            
                                                                                               Flat Head
                                                                              Little Brown and White Duck
                                                                                               Roan Duck
                                                                                                  White or Red-Billed Curlew

His illustrations are considered by many to be fine and realistic renditions. But, again I find them to be flat and a little wooden. They all lack any detailed background or foliage, with birds perched on a twig or log. Some of the colouring looks a little childish as though he had used some bits of crayon

Friday, October 12, 2012

Bigging-up the BTO Pt 1: BirdTrack

There are plenty of really good reasons to join the BTO: conservation, environment, education, research, good scientific practice and surveys. But for on-line interactivity you can’t beat spending a bit of quality time using BirdTrack. In their own words BirdTrack is: ‘The online bird recording system that increases the personal, local and national value of your sightings.’ The best way to explain what it is is to quote directly from the site:
‘BirdTrack is an exciting project, through a partnership between the BTO, the RSPB, Birdwatch Ireland, the Scottish Ornithologists' Club and the Welsh Ornithological Society, that looks at migration movements and distributions of birds throughout Britain and Ireland. BirdTrack provides facilities for observers to store and manage their own personal records as well as using these to support species conservation at local, regional, national and international scales.

                       The idea behind BirdTrack is that if you have been out birdwatching anywhere in Britain and Ireland, or simply watching birds in your garden, records of the birds you have seen (or indeed have not seen) can be useful data. Thus the scheme is year-round, and ongoing, and anyone with an interest in birds can contribute. Important results produced by BirdTrack include mapping migration (arrivals and departures) timings and monitoring scarce birds. We know very little about the timing of arrival and departure of winter visitors and this is just one area in which BirdTrack will provide useful information. There are also many scarce birds where we would like to know much more about their populations.' 

      If you are into listing, stats, graphs, listing and more lists then this is going to be right up your street. You have to sign-up, enter sites and sightings etc. as you would expect but the stuff you can generate and the info. it provides on your birding is awesome. There is a vast range of reports that you can generate and download. Visit lists, site lists, species lists, combinations of all lists generated by your data. You can find out which birds have been seen in your area, get up-to-the-minute migration news, monitor population changes and lots and lots of other good stuff. Your county recorder can use your observations too.


I urge all birders who have not yet had a look at this on-line tool to do so. Whilst there why not download a list of species for any location in Britain or Ireland - put in your post code and find out what's been in your area.
Click on the following link. I don’t think you will be disappointed.

As an example I have just returned from birding Kilvington Lakes in Notts. When I got home I entered my records into BirdTrack; took about ten minutes, and the program allowed me to download a printable list of today's sightings, it up-dated my total species list for the lakes, the year and the month . Today's sightings are available to the Notts recorder and the locality species list is improved. On top of this I have added valuable information to the BTO's data bank.



Authors and Illustrators of Bird Books. Pt III: Jean-Baptiste Audebert

Well he was French and he died in 1800 so it’s not much of a surprise if he’s slipped under your radar. Jean-Baptiste was born in 1759 in Rochefort and died in Paris aged just 41. He started his career as a miniature painter; he wasn’t very small, he painted very small portraits! The only publication of his own work to be completed during his life-time, which was published in ten parts between 1797 and 1800 wasHistoire naturelle des singes’, - A Natural History of Monkeys. This was illustrated by sixty-two folio plates, drawn and engraved by himself. The coloring in these plates was unusually beautiful, and was applied by a method devised by himself.
From a birder’s perspective it would be the two volumes of exquisite plates published in 1802 – after he had died – that provide most interest. The first published as a large folio measuring 51cm x 33.5cm is: ‘Histoire naturelle et generale des Coliris, Oiseauxmouches, Jacamars et Promerops.’ That’s Hummingbirds, Jacamars and Sugarbirds I suspect.

Plate 22 Vol 1
Plate 35 Vol 1

The second ‘Histoire naturelle et generale des Grimpereaux et des Oiseaux de Paradis.’ (Creepers and Birds of Paradise) was published in large 4to format, about 30.5cm x 24cm, and contained 105 plates.
Both of these were combined into one volume: ‘Oiseaux Dores Ou A Reflets Metalliques.’  I think that translates as something like ‘Birds with shiny metal reflections.’ You can see why he chose Hummers and Birds of Paradise – although Starlings would have been good.

The 190 plates were engraved by Audebert, printed in colours, including gold, by a method invented by Audebert in which he printed lines of gold and silver over the painted colours of the birds to give them a metallic sheen imitating the iridescent colours of nature. Clever stuff!
But here’s the really interesting bit: The letterpress under the plates was printed in gold in the folio edition. Twelve copies were issued with the complete text printed in gold and one copy was printed in gold on vellum. Who’s got that? Where is it?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Authors and Illustrators of Bird Books. Pt II: Eleazar Albin

Although Eleazar  has been described as one of the “great entomological book illustrators of the 18th century”  he produced a couple of fine bird books as well as a book on esculent fish. Yes I had to check ‘esculent’ in the dictionary. It means fit to be eaten. That’ll be edible then! He was born in 1690 or thereabouts, possibly in Germany or thereabouts and died in 1742…or thereabouts! For certain he was living in Piccadilly, London in 1708 and he is known to have been married. According to Wikipedia that’s enough to make him English.  Between the years 1731 -1738 he published ‘A Natural History Of The Birds With 306 Copper Plates, Curiously Engraven From Life. And Exactly Colour’d By The Author, Eleazar Albin. To Which Are Added, Notes And Observations By W Derham’.  Published in London as three 4to volumes which did, indeed, contain 306 hand-coloured engravings by Eleazar and his daughter, Elizabeth. Most engravings are signed by one or the other and there are some terrific ones amongst them. There were 101 in volume 1 although I have only been able to find copies with 92 plates – which is a bit odd. Volume 2 had 104 plates and the final 101 plates were in volume 3. These three volumes constitute the earliest coloured book on British Birds even though many of the birds are not British

Recurvirostra avosetta imlorum by Elizabeth Albin. A Plate from Volume 1


The Hoop or Hoopoe Hen taken from Volume 2

Brambling from Volume 3 By Eleazar Albin
Albin was a water-colourist and he taught water colour painting as he tells us himself in the preface to ‘Natural History of Insects’  In the preface to Vol 1 of ‘The Natural History of Birds’  he also adds that he taught his daughter to ‘draw and paint after the life’ and the illustrations are stated upon the title-page to have been carefully coloured by his daughter and himself. I read somewhere that Albin’s pictures were heavily criticised for being lifeless and flat and I can see why that is the case. Yet I quite like these engravings; they are of their time. My main objection is that all the birds look thoroughly startled!
1737 saw the publication of the single 12mo volume of ‘A Natural History of English Song-Birds, And Such Of The Foreign As Are Usually Brought Over And Esteem’d For Their Singing. To Which Are Added, Figures Of The Cock, Hen And Egg Of Each Species, Exactly Copied From Nature, By Eleazar Albin, And Curiously Engraven In Copper. Also A Particular Account How To Order The Canary-Birds In Breeding: Likewise Their Diseases And Cure.’  I’ve read shorter novels than this title!
Although it had a massive title it was a small book containing just 23 hand-coloured engravings. I’ve not been able to find any coloured plates but there must be some available for viewing on the internet. To get a flavour of these engravings here are a couple uncoloured.

All 23 of the plates look like these. Note again the Albin trademark startled expression on these birds. Perhaps the birds and eggs are drawn to scale!
Other famous natural history books by Albin are: ‘A Natural History of English Insects’, 1720. ‘A Natural History of Spiders and Other Curious Insects’, 1736. (Written when a spider was a curious insect) and, of course, ‘A History of Esculent Fish’, 1794 – that’s edible you know!